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For Okwui Enwezor by Maria Eichhorn

Beyond the distemper and disorder in the current state of things, there is one pervasive preoccupation that has been at the heart of our time and of modernity itself. That preoccupation is the nature and logic of Capital, both its fiction and reality. Capital is the great drama of our age. Today nothing looms larger in every sphere of experience, from the predations of the political economy to the rapacity of the financial industry. The exploitation of nature through commodification of its natural resources, the growing structure of inequality, and the weakening of the broader social contract have recently compelled a demand of change.[1]

With texts, exhibitions, and discussions that deconstructed social, institutional, and economic ills while also formulating pioneering, future-oriented alternatives and propositions, Okwui Enwezor helped us strive toward a different, better, more social, more peaceful, and more just world.

Okwui believed in the power of language, of text, and of art, and he believed that individuals can make a difference by bringing about sociopolitical, societal, and ecological changes in the community. For him, exhibitions and books were forms of resistance against a world filled with hate, violence, injustice, and racism. Every bit of his talent and strength went toward countering this with enlightenment, internationality, and passion – passion for art, music, literature, and poetry, and devotion to both his fellow human beings and himself.

Okwui was a Marxist. He had Karl Marx’s Capital read aloud publicly during the 177 days of “All the World’s Futures,” his Venice Biennale, knowing what this could achieve, what it meant. He wanted listeners to have this performance deeply imprinted in their consciousness, for them to be moved to reflection and rethinking by its urgency. While his aspirations, ideas, and projects always aimed at “thinking big,” his personality was full of modesty and humility, underlining his humanity and demonstrating his vulnerability.

I recently spoke with a young woman from the US who grew up in an extremely conservative environment. She told me how it was “All the World’s Futures” that helped her recognize how damaging her upbringing had been and how she was now working to escape that conditioning by campaigning for minority rights.

“The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945–1994” – a 2001 exhibition at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau with artists like Georges Adéagbo, Jane Alexander, Ghada Amer, Zarina Bhimji, Isaac Julien, Moshekwa Langa, Yinka Shonibare, Gazbia Sirry, and Sue Williamson – was the first show of Okwui’s I ever saw. It documented liberation from colonial repression in the era spanning the demand for decolonization of Africa at the fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester in 1945 and the election of Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa in 1994 – the end of the Apartheid regime.

The Biennalen im Dialog (Biennials in Dialog) conference held in Kassel in the August of 2000 was the first time I heard Okwui speak in public. He saw biennials worldwide as cultural forums of self-empowerment that could contribute to breaking down Eurocentrism. Early in 2001, he visited me together with Angelika Nollert to invite me to Documenta11. There were then later meetings in Berlin and Kassel with his co-curators Carlos Basualdo, Ute Meta Bauer, Susanne Ghez, Sarat Maharaj, Mark Nash, and Octavio Zaya.

The power of Documenta11 was also the power of its team of co-curators and employees, including Angelika Nollert, Markus Müller, Gerti Fietzek, Heike Ander, Stephanie Mauch, Christian Rattemeyer, Luise Essen, Winfried Waldeyer, Karin Rebbert, Oliver Marchart, and Sophie Goltz, to name but a few. Being as he was a natural team player, he cultivated amazingly respectful work environments. He had a playful way of creating a great team spirit and was able to control the interplay of creative forces in a way that took the focus of attention away from himself and shared it with the many other participants. And in doing so, he never failed to honor his own responsibilities.

In March 2002, Okwui came to Berlin for the early planning and initial board meeting of Maria Eichhorn Aktiengesellschaft, my art project for Documenta11. He was the board’s chair and remained a member when he was replaced by Charles Esche in 2007. Meticulous as he was, he suggested Angelika Nollert as his successor at anearly stage. She was a close friend, remaining there for him until the very end.

Okwui was extraordinarily generous with his time, his thoughts, and his emotions, both in his collaborations with others and as part of his own curatorial and literary work. Intellectually, he was at the cutting edge of discourse. He recognized and supported unusual artistic ideas unconditionally. He was respectful and political, critical and unconventional, warm and compassionate. In company, he was always an attentive listener. He overflowed with zest for life and was forgiving both with his friends and with his opponents. It was a gift to have met him.

"I just want to note that institutions of contemporary art are often regarded as the most enlightened and liberal of all the cultural institutions active on the world stage. In the 1980s, multiculturalism, feminism, and the gay movement forced new discussions that aimed to break large institutions’ long-standing refusal to reform. [...] In the nineties, however, there was a change of course that slowly and systematically eroded this positive, dynamic environment of debate." [2]

Okwui fought this continuing erosion, and he would have wanted us to continue the fight, too.

translation: Matthew James Scown


[1]Okwui Enwezor, “Exploding Gardens [...] Capital: A Live Reading,” in: All the World’s Futures: La Biennale di Venezia, 56th International Art Exhibition, exh. cat., ed. by Okwui Enwezor, 2015, p. 94
[2]Okwui Enwezor, “Die Black Box,” in: Documenta11_Plattform 5, exh. cat., Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2002, p. 53.

Okwui Enwezor was from 2002 until 2007 the Chair of the Board of Maria Eichhorn Aktiengesellschaft, which was founded for Documenta11. He remained a member of the board from 2007 until 2019.

Maria Eichhorn took part in the Okwui Enwezor-curated Documenta11 in Kassel, 2002; The “Unhomely: Phantom Scenes in Global Society,” the 2nd International Biennial of Contemporary Art of Seville, 2007; and in “All the World’s Futures”: La Biennale di Venezia 56th International Art Exhibition, Venice, 2015.